Teresa Frohock, ‘Miserere’


Miserere is a strange one. The premise is interesting: in addition to Heaven, Hell and Earth, Frohock’s universe also a fictional dimension called Woerld, which acts as a sort of barrier between Hell and Earth. In Woerld, all of Earth’s established religions work together in harmony to prevent the rise of the Fallen, and Templar-esque holy warriors known as Katharoi help in the ongoing fight against evil.

Miserere by Teresa Frohock (cover image)Woerld exists outside of space and time: Miserere is set on Woerld in the year 5873, when a portal opens up and Lindsay,(a girl from present-day America) is dragged through into Woerld. In fact, this is how many of the Katharoi are brought into being: worthy individuals, always children, are chosen to make the one-way trip to Woerld to become Katharoi, leaving their own lives behind forever.

Lindsay is to be the ‘Foundling’ (Padawan) of Lucian, one of the main protagonists, and a large part of Miserere is centred around their relationship. Interestingly, rather than write the story from Lindsay’s point of view in the manner of so many other ‘fish out of water’ or ‘farmboy’ tales, Frohock more or less chooses to maintain the adult PoVs throughout. I think this was the right decision, as it still gives opportunity for explaining the world to someone who is unfamiliar, but it’s less patronising since we’re sharing the PoV of the person who knows rather than the person who is ignorant. A lot of the things Lindsay is forced to witness and experience are fairly dark and unpleasant, and as such the chapters from the child’s PoV can be a little jarring and uncomfortable – which is most likely the author’s intended effect.

The novel features some pretty heavy genre bending, and as such it’s a bit disorienting at first – especially when the author casually tosses around references to the world we live in (such as the way mobile phones can be used on Woerld for a short time before being corrupted by demons and used as Hell portals). Miserere combines elements of urban and traditional fantasy, as well as SF; the presence of holy warriors and Inquisitors give it the feel of historical fiction, while the setting implies that it’s actually a dystopian novel; and the sheer amount of religious imagery (not to mention to plot and the setting) give it a distinctly biblical feel.

I’m in no way religious, and so I imagine there’s a huge amount of religious nuance that was completely lost on me. I’m also unsure of how much of the imagery in the story is taken from the bible and how much has sprung from the author’s imagination, but whichever it is, the vivid imagery is one of the novel’s strongest points. The Sacra Rosa, a rose bush that circles an entire city and wreaks Triffid-style destruction on the Fallen, was one of my favourite images. I also particularly enjoyed the brief flashes we’re given of the Hellscape, and the Simulacrum is also a pretty creepy image. The author skilfully draws on religions and legends from all over the world and brings them all together, and I recognised enough for it to give the book a sense of real authenticity.

One thing that did disappoint me was the ending, which was far less climactic than I expected. A large proportion of the book felt like it was setting up the ‘good vs evil’ battle implied in the blurb: but there are long sections where not much actually happens, and the payoff for going through this wasn’t all that that rewarding. I did get the sense (I hope) that there will be another book about Catarina’s retribution, so perhaps that will have the epic conclusion I was expecting from this one.

Regardless of the book’s flat moments and slightly weak ending, the characters were strong enough to keep me interested throughout. Rachael in particular is an awesome character: she is a holy warrior and a Judge who was abandoned in Hell by the man she loved, and returned possessed by a Wyrm. She’s a strong, believable character who has her own important role in the story, rather than just functioning as the ‘main’ character’s love interest.

Although the blurb of Miserere makes it sound like a love story in a fantasy setting, it’s far from conventional. I was very unsure when I first began to read it – and it probably didn’t help that I read it in fits and starts over the course of a week – but it grew on me a lot, and once I reached the end I was very keen to read more by this author.


This review originally appeared on halfstrungharp.com on 9th September 2014.

Steven Erikson, ‘Memories of Ice’ (review)


Memories of Ice (the third book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen) returns us to the continent of Genabackis (where Gardens of the Moon took place). Many characters from the first book re-appear here, such as notable favourites Anomander Rake, Quick Ben, Kruppe, Tool, Toc the Younger, and Whiskeyjack and the rest of the Bridgeburners.

Mixed in with these are several new additions: there’s Hetan the randy Barghast, Gruntle the grumpy caravan guard captain, Kallor the immortal grudge-holding warrior, Itkovian the tragic servant of a lost god, the mysterious and unflappable Lady Envy, and of course the sinister pair of necromancers known as Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. All of these characters are thrown together as a result of a dubious alliance against a malign empire known as the Pannion Domin.Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson (cover image)

The characters, both new and old, are incredible, and many of the novel’s best moments are character-centred rather than action-driven. Quick Ben’s casual confrontation with the necromancers; Rake’s late-night conversations with Whiskeyjack; Lady Envy’s continual attempts to exact obedience from her companions; and just about anything involving Kruppe – all contribute to make Memories of Ice feel like a living, breathing part of the Malazan world, rather than just the next step of the story.

That’s not to say that the action falls flat, of course: Erikson gives us a plentiful share of the usual fast-paced battles, awesome warrens, explosive weaponry and bickering gods. He also introduces many new elements: some of these are simply brilliant, while others are downright terrifying (we now have K’Chain Che’Malle stalking the world, lightning-fast dinosaur-like undead beings with blades for arms. Yikes!).

But Memories of Ice isn’t all action and horror. Erikson’s capacity for beautiful tragedy, honed to a fine art in Deadhouse Gates, is also deftly applied here: he has a real knack for twisting the knife in your heart before you even realise you’ve been stabbed with it. There are so many small moments that left me blurry-eyed – even though I was expecting them. Then there’s the dark and irreverent humour, deftly placed and serving as a welcome complement to the pathos seeping through the whole tale. The segments following Lady Envy and her motley companions are a delight to read, as are Kruppe’s befuddling monologues and Picker’s interactions with her disparate squad of soldiers (particularly Antsy).

However, a lot of the book is spent following an army on the march, and as such many of the locations (campfires, command tents, hilltops) become quite repetitive. Erikson also seems to have suddenly acquired the desire to explain things in detail, and to recap or clarify things that have already happened. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, Gardens of the Moon would probably have benefited from this in places. But it does occasionally feel as though a huge chunk of the book is taken up with conversations between characters regarding something that we’ve just read, and it sometimes feels as though we’re having to experience some events several times before moving on. It’s as though, upon proof-reading the book, the author slotted in an “exposition inside a command tent” scene wherever he thought his characters’ motives weren’t 100% clear.

I think it’s this repetition that contributes to the relatively slow pace of the novel. Despite the fact that Memories of Ice contains two major – no, epic – battles, along with several exciting skirmishes and powerful displays of magic, I think it suffers from being just a little bit too long. Erikson takes almost 1200 pages to do what he could probably have accomplished in 900, and while I would usually disagree with the concept of “too much” Malazan, I have to say that this is the first time so far during my re-read of the series that I’ve felt a tiny bit disappointed. I always recalled Memories of Ice as being my favourite of the series, full of undead monsters, creepy necromancers, gritty warriors and epic conflict. What I didn’t remember was the sheer volume of command tents, hilltop parleys, and Paran’s stomach pain.

It really says something about Erikson’s writing that, in spite of my griping, Memories of Ice still remains one of the best books I’ve (re-)read this year. The last 200 pages or so more than make up for the slow patches scattered throughout, and I doubt anyone familiar with the series would be able to read them without blurry eyes and a wobbly bottom lip. Contrary to my own recollection, Memories of Ice is not quite as enthralling as Deadhouse Gates . . . but, as with the other books in the series, it touched me in a way no other story has ever quite managed.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 13 October 2014).

Steven Erikson, ‘Deadhouse Gates’ (review)


Set on the fictional continent of Seven Cities, Deadhouse Gates – the second novel in Steven Erikson’s epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen – introduces a plethora of new characters to join those returning from the events of book one. Everything taking place in Deadhouse Gates is influenced by the continent-wide rebellion that was heavily foreshadowed in Gardens of the Moon, and conflict and bloodshed feature on a thus far unprecedented scale.

Concentrated as it is on just a handful of major characters, the plot of Deadhouse Gates is much more tightly woven and focused than that of Gardens of the Moon; yet it’s also far more ambitious. Each storyline is worthy of its own novel, yet Erikson chooses instead to artfully weave them together, creating a cohesive pattern of events that lead gradually but inevitably towards a catastrophic conclusion. The grand scale of the main plotline – Deadhouse Gates by Steven Eriksonthe ‘Chain of Dogs’ – is the first true example of what Erikson is capable of, and the incredible storytelling is just a hint of what the rest of the series has in store.

Deadhouse Gates gives us our first real look at Seven Cities: a culturally diverse desert continent made up largely of warring tribes and religious cities; a continent in the midst of a violent rebellion against the control of the Malazan Empire. Led by a Seeress known as Sha’ik, this rebellion – the Whirlwind Apocalypse – threatens to return the land to its pre-Imperial state of ignorance and tradition, blood feuds and senseless violence, with the soldiers of the Apocalypse having driven their Malazan conquerors out of all but one of the Holy Cities. The Malazans’ panicked flight is the story that lies at the heart of Deadhouse Gates.

The Chain of Dogs, a.k.a. fifty thousand Malazan refugees, escorted across a hostile desert continent by what remains of the Malazan Seventh army and its commander, Coltaine. The Chain of Dogs, stumbling just ahead of a renegade army that vastly outnumbers them all. We witness their plight through the eyes of Duiker, who, as Imperial Historian, is obliged to record every detail of this fraught and seemingly impossible journey.

And what a journey! Not just for the characters, but for us as readers. For the first time in the series – but certainly not the last – Erikson throws us into an emotional blender, and then spends the better part of a thousand pages gradually cranking the setting higher and higher before finally letting us crawl our way back out again, shredded and shaken. As the characters experience shock, fear, determination, fury, pathos, hope, despair, and finally wordless outrage, so do we. I spent most of the last 150 pages of Deadhouse Gates on the brink of tears, partly because I knew what was coming and partly because Erikson has the rare and incredible talent of being able to stir his readers’ emotions with his words, even on a third re-read of the book.

Of course, the other storylines are also brilliant and worthy of mention. And though I don’t think anyone will deny that Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs takes centre stage, let’s not forget the tale of Felisin, yanked from the comforts of her rich lifestyle during the Cull of the Nobility and forced to extreme measures to survive the slave pits with the help of two unlikely companions; and Fiddler, former soldier of the Bridgeburners, seeking an ancient legend in the holy desert of Raraku and completely out of his depth. Then there’s Mappo, a Trell warrior endlessly trapped between his loyalty to a sacred vow and his friendship with the man whom he is sworn to destroy; and the assassin Kalam, returned to his home continent and bent on pursuing vengeance against the Empress who wronged him.

Furthermore, Erikson continues to reveal a limitless capacity for creating unique and memorable characters such as the devious High Priest of Shadow, Iskaral Pust. But no matter how minor the plot thread, each and every one is skilfully interwoven and sets the stage for the rest of the series.

Gardens of the Moon is brilliant, true. But Deadhouse Gates is simply astounding in its storytelling, and left me a gibbering, goosebump-laden wreck – even though I’d already read the thing three times before. I seriously envy those reading it for the first time, and can’t wait to get re-acquainted with the rest of this incredible series, myself.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 31st August 2014)


Blurb

In the Holy Desert Raraku, the seer Sha’ik and her followers prepare for the long-prophesied uprising named the Whirlwind. Enslaved in the Otataral mines, Felisin, youngest scion of the disgraced House of Paran, dreams of freedom and vows revenge, while the outlawed Bridgeburners Fiddler and Kalam conspire to rid the world of Empress Laseen (although it seems the gods would, as always, have it otherwise). And as two ancient warriors – bearers of a devastating secret – enter this blighted land, so an untried commander of the Malaz 7th Army leads his war-weary troops in a last, valiant running battle to save the lives of thirty thousand refugees.

Steven Erikson, ‘Gardens of the Moon’ (review)


Genre giant Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon is the first in a ten-book series that you will inevitably love and worship. (Or hate and resent.) (Or maybe just give up on before reaching the end of book one.)

The first chapter in the truly epic Malazan Book of the Fallen introduces a hugely diverse and seemingly endless cast of characters: mages and soldiers; humans and not-quite-humans; demon lords and talking ravens; gods and nobodies; heroes and villains and others occupying the grey space in between. There are a great many overlapping storylines – huge-scale campaigns, deadly assassin wars, magical battles, political manoeuvring, covert missions – and not all of them appear to fit together very well (at least at first).steven-erikson-gardens-of-the-moon-cover

Yes, Gardens of the Moon gives us a LOT to take in, and the first three hundred pages or so are enough to leave any first-time readers as lost and helpless as a puppet with its strings cut. In the prologue to the newer editions Erikson himself states that he refuses to spoon-feed his readers, and finds it insulting and patronising when other writers do the same. His decision to withhold important backstory and omit dreary exposition is a conscious and tactical choice, and he is fully aware that Gardens of the Moon is likely to leave readers floundering.

However, Erikson assumes that those of us who choose to read his work don’t mind floundering a little; don’t mind having to work things out for ourselves, and don’t mind waiting many hours and thousands of pages before the pieces finally begin to fit together. As someone who has read all ten books in this series I can unequivocally state that finally reaching the moment(s) when everything starts to make sense . . . makes ploughing through the confusion at the beginning so worthwhile.

The Malazan series as a whole contains enough ‘ohhhh, so that’s what that was about!’ moments that the rewards of reading well outweigh the challenges. That said, it’s only upon re-reading Gardens of the Moon and the rest that you really begin to appreciate the amount of planning and detail that Erikson has put into this series. There are so many tiny nuances that take on a double meaning, so much of the dialogue that becomes multi-layered, and so many little things that you didn’t notice the first time but are steeped in pathos now that you’re fully aware of the events to follow.

As a debut novel, Gardens of the Moon is insanely dense and ambitious. It’s also incredibly clever and well-executed; and while I’m not claiming that Gardens of the Moon is the best book I’ve ever read, it is the first book in the best series I’ve ever read. In my opinion Gardens of the Moon is actually the weakest instalment of the entire Malazan Book of the Fallen, yet it’s still spectacular (and far superior to much of what’s on the shelves today).

If you haven’t read Gardens of the Moon, my advice to you is ‘read it, but have patience, and be prepared to read more in the series in order to fully appreciate it’. If you have already read it, then go ahead and re-read it right now. 

Either way, you can thank me later.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on August 10th 2014)


Blurb

The vast Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, its subject states bled dry by interminable warfare and clashes with Anomander Rake, Lord of Moon’s Spawn, and the mysterious Tiste Andii. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet the Empress’ rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.

For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his cynical squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, sole surviving sorceress of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to heal the still living and mourn the many dead. The Empress has other ideas.

However, it would appear the Empire is not the only player in this great game. A more sinister, shadowbound force is poised to make its first move . . .

Susanna Clarke, ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ (review)


Gorgeous. Enthralling. Captivating. Mesmerising. These are all words I certainly didn’t use when I first attempted to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell a few years ago, finally abandoning it around the 600-page mark. I remembered little about the book, except that I quite enjoyed it at first but found that it soon became dry and laborious. However, I recently came to realise that I might be the only person in existence who has a problem with the book, and so resigned myself to give it another go . . . and WOW am I glad I did.
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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is, ostensibly, a tale of two magicians named Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But this is far too simplistic a description for what is actually a lengthy, beautiful, meandering tale of magic and ambition and rivalry and friendship, told over the span of a decade and often focusing on subplots and minor characters as much as on its two main protagonists.

In Clarke’s alternative nineteenth-century England, magic is considered a lost art. Not since the disappearance of the Raven King – a legendary magician who once ruled the North – and his successors have there been any true magicians. That is, until Mr Norrell makes himself known as the only practical magician in England, and possibly the world. The fashionable people of London are delighted by such a novelty, while the government see in him an opportunity to gain advantage in the war against Napoleon. When a second magician presents himself to Mr Norrell as a pupil it seems everything is going splendidly . . . but it doesn’t take long before professional disagreements, a string of tragedies, and the interference of a mysterious gentlemanly antagonist begin to make both Strange and Norrell think twice about their ambition to restore magic to England.

Clarke’s story, and the alternative England in which it takes place, is incredibly detailed and ambitious, astonishingly so when considering that this is the work of a debut author. Although the plot itself is anything but focused, this is clearly an intentional quirk that only adds to the novel’s charm, and the sense of unexpectedness created by the winding series of events is just one of the things that kept me reading. Though meandering, the story is nonetheless coherent and engaging. Each chapter is titled with the month and year in which it takes place, which is particularly helpful in keeping track of events; and an abundance of footnotes alternately provides the reader with additional information, historical references and fascinating anecdotes, adding further charm and depth to an already rich and satisfying reading experience.

Furthermore, the pages are filled with beautifully vivid and evocative descriptions: of magical forests and city streets in winter, of candlelit libraries and dark landscapes, of ruined castles and mysterious roads. The author doesn’t just set the scene; she dazzles the reader with striking imagery and envelops them in an atmosphere both hauntingly magical and poignantly melancholy.

Clarke bravely and successfully attempts to emulate nineteenth-century novelists in both subject and tone. The result is a delightful hybrid of Austen’s droll social satire and ironic commentary and Dickens’s comical caricatures and perceptive observations of city life. On the other hand, the dry humour suffusing the whole is, I suspect, entirely the author’s own, and it is this mocking, almost self-deprecating voice that provides entertainment at times when arguably nothing is happening plot-wise. I particularly enjoyed the satirical portrait of Mr Norrell that continues throughout the novel: Norrell is somewhat despicable what with his jealous hoarding of knowledge, rudeness to others and egotistical sense of his own superiority, not to mention his hypocrisy; and yet he is also clever and fascinating, and I found myself turning page after page just to see what he would do next.

Of course, both protagonists are entertaining in their own way, but it’s the brilliantly varied cast of secondary characters that really helps them to shine: Drawlight is despicable yet strangely sympathetic; Lascelles is clever and manipulative; Stephen Black is noble yet naïve; Childermass is wry and enigmatic. And (naturally) none are quite as secondary as they first appear, least of all the spectacular villain known only as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.

Despite Mr Norrell’s ongoing attempts to categorise it in lists and trap it in books, the magic of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is ephemeral, mutable and largely unexplained. In this day and age, where works of fantasy are too often judged by how fastidious and logical their magic rules and ‘systems’ are, I can’t stress how refreshing it is to read a work instead suffused with nebulous magic, myths and legends, where the limits and possibilities and, indeed, reasons for magic remain mostly unknown.

I’ll admit that I became a little disheartened not long after beginning the book, largely because it seemed to be taking so long to read. However I soon realised I was more than happy to linger over each page, to take the time to appreciate each word, and even to re-read lines and passages that particularly appealed. By the time I finally approached the end I deliberately slowed my pace even further, to savour the final moments of this extraordinary book that I once disliked but now utterly adore and admire. I’m running out of ways to express how much I loved this book, so I’ll end with an incoherent string of adjectives. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is gorgeous. It’s enthralling. It’s surprising. It’s captivating. It’s mesmerising. It’s hilarious. It’s heart-breaking.

It might even be the best book I’ve ever read.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 17th May 2015)


Blurb

The year is 1806, England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains, the reclusive Mr Norrell, whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French.

Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms that between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.

T. Frohock, ‘Los Nefilim’ (review)


RIGHT NOW is a phenomenal time to be a fan of speculative fiction. Seriously: there’s an insane amount of amazing SFF writers in today’s market, and the modern fantasy reader is spoilt for choice with a selection that would leave Mr. Norrell gobsmacked and which would – if it were all edible – satisfy even Dudley ‘Big D’ Dursley.
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But it’s sadly inevitable (inedible, too – sorry Dudders) that for every Mark Lawrence or Robin Hobb there are a thousand other writers striving to make a name for themselves – lots of whom are probably just as talented, and some perhaps even more so. In the struggle against obscurity, this means that many equally-deserving authors are overlooked by those caught in the gravitational field of the ‘big names.’ And while I’m in no way saying that those successful few are unfairly hogging the spotlight, I am suggesting that sampling the work of lesser-known writers may prove to be less of a gamble than you might think.

Frohock is by no means a newbie to the writing game: her debut novel, Miserere, was published by Night Shade back in 2011 and garnered a relatively small but loyal following. However, Miserere was (erroneously) marketed as religious and YA fiction, neither of which accurately reflect the novel’s content or target audience. Religion features heavily in the story, but it certainly isn’t a ‘religious’ novel: Frohock wasn’t writing from a religious perspective so much as borrowing imagery from lots of existing religions in order to create a vivid and fantastical setting for her dark (and sometimes brutal) tale.

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Miserere is a surreal and enjoyable read that unfortunately still remains in the shadows of obscurity. Since its release Frohock has continued to weave dark fantasy into real-life religion and history. Her three most recent novellas – In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death – have just been published together as Los Nefilim. This wonderful collection is a joy to read: each novella flows seamlessly into the next to form a well-rounded and well-plotted story in three beautifully-titled parts.

A superbly dark and atmospheric fantasy set in 1930s Barcelona, Los Nefilim is a captivating tale of eternal conflict between angels and demons. First off, let me clarify that even though it’s set in pre-WW2 Spain I hesitate in calling Los Nefilim ‘historical fantasy’. The reason for this is that although the historical context has some relevance to the events, and although the settings are consistently vivid and immersive, I feel as though the story itself transcends both time and place: Frohock weaves her tale with admirable finesse using the colourful and tightly-knit threads of her protagonists, who – despite being vividly drawn – are so sympathetic it’s possible to imagine their situation happening anywhere, any time, and to anyone.

t-frohock-midnights-silence-coverLos Nefilim is centred around the character Diago, a troubled but immensely likeable Nephilim of mixed angelic and daimonic descent. Diago and his partner, Miquel, have been devoted to one another for centuries, but both their loyalty and livelihood are threatened when the escalating supernatural war invades their personal lives. Diago and Miquel’s relationship defines – and is defined by – events, and is inseparable from the story itself. Frohock succeeds in pulling the reader deep into Diago’s world: a realm of harsh decisions, few of which can be made without endangering either his lover or his cause.

The best part is that the author doesn’t bash us over the head with the internal ‘true-love-vs.-greater-good’ conflict. Los Nefilim are the very embodiment of human nature in all its shades of grey; and nothing is ever so simple as ‘good vs. evil,’ even when angels are involved.

Especially when angels are involved.

Just as well, then, that the heroes of Los Nefilim are deep, fully-rounded characters who are far too complex to be defined simply by which master they serve; or, for that matter, by their sexuality. Issues of gender are neither downplayed nor dwelt on, and the fact that Diago and Miquel are both men is but a natural part of the story.

(In fact, the author’s egalitarian approach to gender holds up a mirror to our own lives in the least patronising way possible. Simply put, Frohock shows us a society where men are just as vulnerable as women, and often suffer in silence because of unequal and arbitrary gender expectations. She shows us a society in which men are just as likely as women to experience rape, and verbal abuse, and sexual harassment – a fact we all need to recognise and empathise with.)

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On the surface, Los Nefilim could also be regarded as a moral tale about overcoming intolerance: the Nephilim’s secret war does indeed serve as a clever analogy for how homosexuality was stifled beneath the stigma of a god-fearing society. But while this is without doubt a huge part of the story, in my opinion it’s actually far subtler than that. Great speechifiers and glorious martyrs our protagonists ain’t: they are heroes of necessity, not intent. And Frohock doesn’t idealise Diago and Miquel’s relationship so much as naturalise it. Their connection is shown through understated dialogue and non-verbal interactions, and by the gradual emergence of both men’s paternal instincts as they work hard to create a harmonious family unit for Diago’s son.

For me this was a huge relief. In the past I’ve pointed out more than a few female writers who draw on shallow stereotypes of sexual promiscuity and unequal partnerships in an attempt to portray same-sex male couples. Thankfully, Frohock avoids this entirely: she doesn’t ‘write gay characters’; she writes characters who happen to be gay. Contrary to stereotypical beliefs – and exactly like couples of any orientation – Miquel and Diago don’t hump like rabbits, nor are they joined at the hip. And their relationship might be the pivot on which the events of Los Nefilim turn . . . but no one can accuse the story of being ‘too romantic’.

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Frohock writes with precision and balance, and the result is a faultless blend of beauty and brutality, cruelty and love, action and reaction forming a story that is pleasantly complex and satisfying. She lets us hear colours and see music. Her prose is wonderfully lyrical, yet functional. Unlike yours truly, Frohock isn’t one to waffle: she uses the minimum amount of words to say what she needs to say in the most beautiful way possible.

Bear with me. I’m going to try and explain better using an overcomplicated and probably inappropriate metaphor.

Imagine that books are like . . . banquets. No, really: the table is the plot, the tablecloths the setting, the food the story and the centrepiece the characters. Or something.

We’ve all read good books. And we can all imagine a good banquet. Right? Good food, good company, good evening.

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Now imagine the most unique and exquisite banquet you can think of; one with impossibly rich and varied dishes, and with sentient centrepieces that predict the future but only sometimes tell the truth; a banquet where the wine tastes like hope and the sausage rolls smell like betrayal and the ambient hum of conversation sounds like an argument and a marriage proposal and a promise of violence and thunder, and where everything is made more real by the dark riveting rainbow-coloured music of Frohock’s prose.

Dammit. Now I’m hungry. And also a little bit confused.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that T. Frohock is a damn fine writer who uses damn fine prose to tell a damn fine story.

Go and check out her stuff. Right now.


T. Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She lives in North Carolina, where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

You’ll frequently find her lurking on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on her official website.


Blurb

Collected together for the first time, T. Frohock’s three novellas—In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death—brings to life the world of Los Nefilim, Spanish Nephilim that possess the power to harness music and light in the supernatural war between the angels and daimons. In 1931, Los Nefilim’s existence is shaken by the preternatural forces commanding them … and a half-breed caught in-between.

Diago Alvarez, a singular being of daimonic and angelic descent, is pulled into the ranks of Los Nefilim in order to protect his newly-found son. As an angelic war brews in the numinous realms, and Spain marches closer to civil war, the destiny of two worlds hangs on Diago’s actions. Yet it is the combined fates of his lover, Miquel, and his young son, Rafael, that weighs most heavily on his soul.

Lyrical and magical, Los Nefilim explores whether moving towards the light is necessarily the right move, and what it means to live amongst the shadows.

Review: Jeff Salyards, ‘Veil of the Deserters’


You’ll be pleased to know that I’m not here to bore you with generalised, hyperbolic gushing about how much I’m loving the world of Jeff Salyards’ Bloodsounder’s Arc (I waffled on enough in my review of book one, ‘Scourge of the Betrayer’).

No, what I’m actually here to do is bore you with specific, hyperbolic gushing* about how much I’m bloody loving this series.

(*Disclaimer: fangirlish gushing is an inadvertent and unavoidable side effect of reading this author’s work.)
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Veil of the Deserters’ picks right up where ‘Scourge’ left off, whirling us off our feet and right back into the story with even less fucking around than a typical episode of 24. Injuries that were inflicted in the first book are still causing problems (broken ribs don’t heal overnight, y’know) as Arki’s tale continues to unfold in ‘real time’ using the same focused PoV and slow-build structure that had such a Marmite effect on many readers of book one. Personally, I think it’s brilliant . . . but there’s no accounting for taste.

Luckily for those who disliked the first book’s narrow approach to worldbuilding, the story’s scope begins to widen dramatically in ‘Veil’; and the writing becomes delightfully evocative to match it. Salyards’ hypnotic prose conjures some truly striking settings and imagery, with vivid and poetic descriptions woven seamlessly into the narrative. The scene that made the biggest impression on me was especially memorable because of its spectacular backdrop; I highlighted certain passages as I was reading, and when I went back to check the notes I’d made I’d annotated these parts with just the words: “fucking gorgeous.”

But since our narrator is accompanying a close-knit group of soldiers on their long, dangerous trek home, it makes sense that a much larger amount of the book is devoted to portraying their interactions with one another. Lucky, then, that Salyards also writes dialogue like a boss. Conversations are witty but natural; there’s biting rejoinders and clever repartee and laugh-out-loud snark and sarcasm a-plenty, but it’s recurring rather than constant and never once does it feel forced.

Dialogue is a vital part of any novel, and more so in one that uses first person. Bloodsounder’s Arc filters our understanding of everything that goes on by showing it to us through the narrow window of Arki’s narrative, which means that the only way we (and Arki) learn about the characters is by observing their interactions. I simply can’t stress enough how skilfully this is accomplished here. Furthermore, each of the more prominent characters speak in ways that are subtly different. Speech tags are a rarity because they are simply not necessary: Mulldoos, Vendurro, Braylar and the rest each have their own voice, and it’s easy to distinguish between them even during group conversations.

When I reviewed ‘Scourge’ I praised Salyards’ skill in creating characters who feel like real people, and he continues to demonstrate that skill throughout ‘Veil’. Familiar faces become both less and more so as the layers obscuring their lives are gradually peeled away; flaws and virtues are laid bare in equal measure as Arki slowly comes to find his own place in the company.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Arki’s relationship with Braylar, which develops in new and organic – and sometimes surprising – ways. A partnership born of expedience and founded on mutual tolerance begins to grow into something almost approaching friendship, or at the very least grudging respect. One of the more obvious signs of this is that Braylar becomes less vitriolic towards Arki, to the point where his sarcastic mockery sounds almost more affectionate than hostile. In response Arki sheds some of his fearful passivity, and begins to speak and act with initiative and increasing temerity.

Some would argue that dialogue and internal voice dominate the book at the expense of its plot. I would disagree wholeheartedly. Part of this series’ charm is the way it takes its time, draws you in, makes you care without realising, until something happens (preparing an ambush by sunset, perhaps?) and the pages leading up to that moment become unbearably tense, and the blow-by-blow fight scenes even more so.

Combat in Salyards’ world is brutal, exhausting and inglorious. I’ve said before, he writes fight scenes so realistically that they’re almost painful to read. One-handed weapons don’t shear through armour like a hot knife through butter; instead they’re frequently used to bash and pummel a heavily-armoured opponent into submission, which is less gory but far, far more brutal. Arrows are deflected by helms, crossbow bolts do very little damage to those wearing decent armour, and whether or not you manage to shoot your enemy in the face at range is much more dependent on luck than skill.

Most importantly, whenever there is fighting to be had the reader is fully aware that every single character is in danger, regardless of whether or not they’re actively participating. The narrator’s intimate focus on small groups and individual soldiers gives a real sense of immediacy: Salyards basically situates us right there beside Arki, in front-row seats where we can hear the grunts and clashes, feel the blood spray, smell the sweat of the armoured and exhausted combatants as they instinctively struggle to be the last man standing.

It’s not only during combat that we’re immersed in the story right alongside Arki. The first-person perspective ensures that ‘Veil’ remains grounded in realism even during its most fantastical moments; this, for me, is the most defining characteristic of the series. Salyards anchors the reader firmly within his narrator’s world, and in doing so persuades us to share his incredulity, his naivety, his limited experience of what may or may not be possible. And so it is that, when the fantastical does happen, it seems all the more remarkable and real.

It’s so deftly done that we scarcely even notice this subtle process. Right from the start of book one it’s as though our imagination has been slowly lowering its anchor into this world until it finally hit the bottom and lodged there. But it’s not until the events of ‘Veil’, when the narrator’s very definition of the impossible is called into question, that we feel our anchor unexpectedly pulled by these strange tides, and finally realise we’re about as thoroughly embedded in Arki’s world as it’s possible to be.

A fun little offshoot of this is that the author uses his narrator’s ignorance to poke fun at oft-overlooked aspects the genre. For example: at one point Arki reflects on how much maintenance horses require. “I suppose I always imagined you simply rode until you were done riding and then got off,” he muses; and whether or not Salyards intended it this way, there’s no denying that a vast amount of fantasy authors appear to make the same assumption as Arki. I know, I know: the genre’s called ‘fantasy’, it’s not meant to be realistic, etc., etc. Still, the best fantasies are written in such a way that we actually believe in them, even just for a moment. A thoroughly immersive reading experience relies on little touches of credibility, which is why Bloodsounder’s Arc is already one of the most engaging and (dare I say) believable speculative fiction series I’ve encountered.

Even the magic feels real. Wielded only by women, Salyards’ magic is mind-based, clever and unconventional: you’ll find no fireballs or magic missiles here. It’s not flashy in the slightest – which perhaps makes it even more frightening – but it’s still deadly, and it takes its toll on the caster as well as the target. Magic played a relatively small role in ‘Scourge’, and was largely mentioned only in dark muttering and cryptic references. But here we finally get to meet the dread Memoridons, or ‘memory witches’, two of whom accompany our favourite Syldoon and add an intriguing new dynamic to the group.

In fact, one of the Memoridons – Braylar’s sister Soffjian – has already become one of my favourite characters, despite the fact that she doesn’t actually take up a lot of page time. Using the angry, fearful reactions of Braylar and his men, the author makes Soffjian’s presence felt even before the reader meets her, and when she does join the Syldoon her presence in the group affects everything the soldiers say and do. Salyards lets us see just enough of her strength and skill – in interactions both verbal and physical – that we’re left in no doubt about her badass credentials. Salyards also does a rare thing: he manages to write a strong female character – who for the most part is clever and cunning, hostile and aloof, and frankly a bit of a bitch – and make her not only someone we sympathise with but also who we admire.

Well. I do, anyway. In fact, Soffjian is my new hero.

That said . . . fetch me my ranseur, and be quick about it. ‘Ranseur’, yes. You know, the big pointy—eugh, forget the ranseur. Just bring me the next book. ‘Chains of the Heretic’, that’s the one. I’ve heard it’s the best of the bunch!

Well, of course I have high expectations of it, fool. What? ‘What if it doesn’t live up to them?’ Of course it will! And if not, then it’s like Braylar himself says: “even if it proves less than gripping or convincing, it is better than a dead horse.”


Blurb

History, Family and Memory… these are the seeds of destruction.

Bloodsounder’s Arc continues as Captain Braylar Killcoin and his retinue continue to sow chaos amongst the political elite of Alespell. Braylar is still poisoned by the memories of those slain by his unholy flail Bloodsounder, and attempts to counter this sickness have proven ineffectual.

The Syldoonian Emperor Cynead has solidified his power base in unprecedented ways, and demands loyalty from all operatives. Braylar and company are recalled to the capital to swear fealty. Braylar must decide if he can trust his sister, Soffjian, with the secret that is killing him. She has powerful memory magics that might be able to save him from Bloodsounder’s effects, but she has political allegiances that are not his own. Arki and others in the company try to get Soffjian and Braylar to trust one another, but politics in the capital prove to be far more complicated and dangerous than even Killcoin could predict.

Deposed emperor Thumarr plots to remove the repressive Cynead, and Braylar and his sister Soffjian lie at the heart of his plans. The distance between “favored shadow agent of the emperor” and “exiled traitor” is an unsurprisingly short road. But it is a road filled with blind twists and unexpected turns. Before the journey is over, Arki will chronicle the true intentions of Emperor Cynead and Soffjian. And old enemies in Alespell may prove to be surprising allies in a conflict no one could have foreseen. 


You can connect with Jeff via Facebook and Twitter, or  check out jeffsalyards.com for more (his blog on there is ridiculously entertaining).


 

Review: John Gwynne, ‘Ruin’


As I’ve already talked about here, the Gemmell Award longlists are up and I’m reposting my reviews of the nominees I’ve read. (I’ve already done Joe Abercrombie (here) and Mark Lawrence (here).) Next up is yet another deserving title from my five star club: ‘Ruin’ .
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It’s not often that I care enough about a book to feel physically sick with nerves as I turn the pages, waiting to see what will happen to a beloved character. It’s also not often that a book makes me cry like a baby. Ruin drove me to both of these, leaving me a sobbing wreck after reading the final line. But I won’t hold that against it, seeing as it’s also an awesomely epic and ambitious tale that delivered everything it promised and more.

Ruin is the third book in John Gwynne’s fantastic The Faithful and the Fallen fantasy quartet, a series which has so far woven an incredibly dense, complex and engaging story. Although the books appear to be getting longer and longer they are also becoming easier and easier to read, a testament to the author’s flowing style and continually improving writing skills. Ruin boasts a cast of no less than fourteen point-of-view characters – FOURTEEN!! – reflecting the epic scale of the series. Far from being confusing, this actually enables us to see the events of the story from conflicting perspectives; and while it’s clear who the true ‘baddies’ are, many characters are formed in shades of grey and it’s fascinating to see their internal conflicts and motivations. Ruin is also notably populated with strong female characters – such as Cywen, Coralen, Fidele, Laith, Brina, and Kulla – who serve important roles even when relegated to the background. Although there are so many characters to keep track of, and although it’s been over a year since reading Valour, I found that I immediately remembered most characters from previous books, which just goes to show how much I’ve become invested in them during the many hundreds of pages of their story so far.

While I’m still not overly-fond of the A Song of Ice and Fire-style ‘named chapters’ in general, I have to admit that Gwynne really, really makes it work here. Many chapters are fairly short and rapidly alternating, creating a sense of adrenaline and setting a breathless pace that had me fumbling to turn the pages faster and mumbling to myself, “just one more chapter”. Other chapters are longer and more detailed explorations of individual characters’ motives and emotions, providing intriguing insights into nearly every aspect of the overarching conflict. With so many disparate groups of characters to keep track of, each chapter becomes a keyhole through which we glean hints of what might happen, and through which we gain numerous perspectives on events. Viewing a battle – along with its associated victories, losses and deaths – from different sides of the conflict brings humanity to each and every character, whether ‘good’, ‘evil’, or in-between.

I said in my review of Malice that I’d like to see future battle scenes to be more personal and character-driven, and wow has that wish been granted. The prophesied God-War has finally begun in earnest, but Ruin shows the true face of what this kind of war would entail. Gwynne tells an incredible story of unlikely heroes, well-meaning villains and tired refugees; a story packed with messy skirmishes and small-scale ambushes; a story of confusing conflicts, with people on both sides getting lost and making mistakes, with losses slowly adding up and constant fighting taking its toll both physically and mentally. The action comes thick and fast and it feels as though the reader is there in the midst of it all, sweating and bleeding and dodging attacks from every quarter. The character-driven narratives and their focus on the immediacy of each situation makes it feel a lot less glorious, but a lot more real.

Needless to say Ruin is much grimmer and gorier than its predecessors. The Banished Lands are at war: no longer charmingly rural, the Celtic settings have become wild and threatening, with large parts of the novel set in uncharted forests, treacherous marshes and daunting giant ruins. This makes for some weird and wonderful imagery, and creates a tangible atmosphere of threat and tension. In fact there’s a real gritty feel to the entire story, and I think the point the author is making here with Ruin is: shit just got real. Despite this, Gwynne manages to create a sense of grimness and overwhelming odds without resorting to the George R R Martin method of mass-murdering every character in sight. Ruin’s underlying tone is, surprisingly, one of optimism: its characters are strong and determined, working together to cope with their losses and continue their attempts to achieve the impossible. Although bleak in places and sickeningly violent in others, grimdark this ain’t. And I like that.

It’s dark, thrilling and bloody. But Ruin’s strongest point is, for me, its characters. Gwynne takes character relationships crafted throughout the first two novels – between friends, family, loved ones and, especially, animals – and brings them beautifully to the fore without overstating them, whilst also forging new ones along the way. He never lets us forget that this entire series is a sprawling net comprised of a thousand little strands of humanity, and that’s what makes it such an engaging and sometimes emotional read. Gwynne has really, really upped his writing game with Ruin, and I have every confidence that the final instalment of The Faithful and the Fallen will continue to thrill, continue to astound . . . and, of course, continue to make me cry like a baby.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 1st August 2015.)


Blurb

The Banished Lands are engulfed in war and chaos. The cunning Queen Rhin has conquered the west and High King Nathair has the cauldron, most powerful of the seven treasures. At his back stands the scheming Calidus and a warband of the Kadoshim, dread demons of the Otherworld. They plan to bring Asroth and his host of the Fallen into the world of flesh, but to do so they need the seven treasures. Nathair has been deceived but now he knows the truth. He has choices to make, choices that will determine the fate of the Banished Lands.

Elsewhere the flame of resistance is growing – Queen Edana finds allies in the swamps of Ardan. Maquin is loose in Tenebral, hunted by Lykos and his corsairs. Here he will witness the birth of a rebellion in Nathair’s own realm.

Corban has been swept along by the tide of war. He has suffered, lost loved ones, sought only safety from the darkness. But he will run no more. He has seen the face of evil and he has set his will to fight it. The question is, how? With a disparate band gathered about him – his family, friends, giants, fanatical warriors, an angel and a talking crow he begins the journey to Drassil, the fabled fortress hidden deep in the heart of Forn Forest. For in Drassil lies the spear of Skald, one of the seven treasures, and here it is prophesied that the Bright Star will stand against the Black Sun.


 

Review: Mark Lawrence, ‘The Liar’s Key’


In the run-up to the Gemmell Awards I thought it’d be fun to jump on the virtual bandwagon and re-post my own reviews of the titles I’ve read from the Legend longlist. (I’ve already reviewed Joe Abercrombie here.) Since I’m lucky enough to be currently reading The Wheel of Osheim, I thought it rather appropriate that I post about Mark Lawrence’s entry next.

Mark Lawrence is one of my favourite modern fantasy authors. First he blew me away with his Broken Empire trilogy (Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns). Then, just when I thought he couldn’t get any better, he unleashed a new trilogy titled The Red Queen’s War, set in the same dystopian universe as Broken Empire. The first book in this series, Prince of Fools, was simply awesome; happily, the series continues in the same vein with The Liar’s Key. Although its hefty length means it’s not quite the mile-a-minute thrill ride Prince of Fools was, The Liar’s Key does allow us more opportunities to catch our breath and spend more time learning about our favourite loveable rogue Jalan Kendeth.

lawrence-liars-key-coverHaving been dragged to the ends of the earth in the previous book, The Liar’s Key sees the spoilt prince of Red March dragged all the way back home again in a variety of dangerous and entertaining circumstances. We’re still following several of the same characters from earlier in the series, including Snorri, a Viking warrior on a quest to reclaim his lost family, and Tuttugu, Snorri’s most loyal follower (who actually prefers fishing to axe-fighting). A couple of new characters are also thrown into the mix: the witch Kara and the orphan child Hennan add a new dynamic to the not-so-happy gathering, and open up new and interesting possibilities plot-wise.

The Liar’s Key is essentially a fantastically insane travelogue, meaning that yet more of the wonderful broken empire setting is unveiled here than ever before. Not only are we shown new places that have thus far only been hinted at – such as the dreaded Wheel of Osheim – but we also bump into a couple of characters from the original Broken Empire trilogy, each instance of which feels like a cross between a celebrity cameo and a reunion with old friends. Jalan himself is an incredibly likeable character despite his somewhat despicable nature, and his seemingly ceaseless supply of sardonic retorts and self-deprecating witticisms makes almost everything that comes out of his mouth immensely quotable. Furthermore I really enjoyed the way in which Jal’s character develops subtly and consistently, and the use of flashbacks to reveal more about his family’s history is done in a really clever and interesting way.

Lawrence’s prose flows effortlessly as always, making every page delightfully easy and entertaining to read. While I didn’t enjoy The Liar’s Key quite as much as I did Prince of Fools, it’s not often I find myself reading a book for the first time knowing that I’ll re-read it at some point in the near future. Lawrence’s Broken Empire books have already proven themselves to be even more clever and entertaining upon re-reading, and I’m certain that The Red Queen’s War will be the same. The world of the broken empire is like a distorted jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which are scattered throughout each book, and we can’t truly start to put it together properly until we have all the pieces.

Mark Lawrence is as creatively talented as Jalan Kendeth is outrageously likeable, and I continue to be thoroughly entertained by both of them.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 21st July 2015.)


Blurb

The Red Queen has set her players on the board…

Winter is keeping Prince Jalan Kendeth far from the longed-for luxuries of his southern palace. And although the North may be home to his companion, the warrior Snorri ver Snagason, he is just as eager to leave. For the Viking is ready to challenge all of Hell to bring his wife and children back into the living world. He has Loki’s key – now all he needs is to find the door.

As all wait for the ice to unlock its jaws, the Dead King plots to claim what was so nearly his – the key into the world – so that the dead can rise and rule.


 

Review: ‘Prince of Fools’ by Mark Lawrence


Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy was one of my best discoveries of 2013, largely due to its dark tone and brilliantly captivating first person narrative, and I expected big things of Prince of Fools. Lawrence delivered all of them, bigger and better than even I’d been looking forward to. Prince of Fools is the first book of The Red Queen’s War and it follows the converging paths of two very different characters: Snorri ver Snagason, a Norse raider from Viking lands; and Jalan Kendeth, a bone-idle prince from Red March.

Lawrence - Prince of FoolsLawrence’s prose is poetic and flowing, easy to read and with the usual characteristic undercurrent of dry, occasionally dark humour. The tone is light even when the plot is gritty, which makes it very engaging and difficult to put down. The protagonist is witty, amusing and occasionally outrageous, and his insights and narrative voice are always entertaining (although sometimes he appears to get so caught up in his own witticisms that he forgets to tell the story). The fact that he has Snorri to bounce off (sometimes literally) helps to highlight his personality even further, and the juxtaposition of the two opposing characters works really well.

Those who found Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy too dark and its main character unsympathetic may have more luck here. Jalan Kendeth is certainly no Jorg Ancrath, despite the similar-sounding names. True, they’re both royal princes, they both leave their homelands to go on adventures, and neither of them care very much about anyone except themselves, at least at first. However, while Jorg is a somewhat sociopathic, homicidal teen with aspirations to rule an empire, Jalan is a self-professed coward, a twenty-something womaniser and gambler who just wants to spend his time enjoying the finer things in life. His internal monologue, in which he continually whinges and whines and ruminates on the wisdom of running away in every possible situation, is refreshingly different to Jorg’s no-nonsense goal-centred character, although I personally find both very entertaining in their own way.

One of my favourite aspects of the Broken Empire series were the references to the ‘Builders’ world, and the irony created by characters’ ignorant observations and assumptions about the things left behind from this world. I was pleased to see this continue in Prince of Fools with many more humorous comments, such as the legend of the train (which Jal thinks must have been a “fearsome beast” to have been able to plough through the side of a mountain), Skilfar’s “plasteek guardians”, and – my personal favourite – a Viking longship named Ikea.

Unlike the Broken Empire, there are no confusing time hops in Prince of Fools. Aside from the occasional memory, and Jalan’s gradual telling of Snorri’s tale, the entire story is focused solely on events occurring over several weeks, and from the perspective of one single character. This makes it easier to see how the main character develops during the course of the story, and demonstrates the author’s ability to subtly build character without resorting to flashbacks and time-jumps. I will say that I was a little disappointed with how the development seems to reverse again by the end of the novel, but hopefully more will be revealed in the second book.

If you didn’t enjoy the Broken Empire trilogy, I’d definitely recommend giving this a go instead. If you did enjoy the Broken Empire trilogy, then why haven’t you read this yet??

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 3rd July 2014.)


Blurb

The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire dread her like no other. For all her reign, she has fought the long war, contested in secret, against the powers that stand behind nations, for higher stakes than land or gold. Her greatest weapon is The Silent Sister—unseen by most and unspoken of by all.

The Red Queen’s grandson, Prince Jalan Kendeth—drinker, gambler, seducer of women—is one who can see The Silent Sister. Tenth in line for the throne and content with his role as a minor royal, he pretends that the hideous crone is not there. But war is coming. Witnesses claim an undead army is on the march, and the Red Queen has called on her family to defend the realm. Jal thinks it’s all a rumor—nothing that will affect him—but he is wrong.

After escaping a death trap set by the Silent Sister, Jal finds his fate magically intertwined with a fierce Norse warrior. As the two undertake a journey across the Empire to undo the spell, encountering grave dangers, willing women, and an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath along the way, Jalan gradually catches a glimmer of the truth: he and the Norseman are but pieces in a game, part of a series of moves in the long war—and the Red Queen controls the board.